Happy Hlafmaest Everyone. Hlafmaest/ Lughnasadh/ Lammas is the “feast of first fruits” or “feast of loaves” held on 1st August each year to celebrate the beginning of the grain and potato harvest and the start of Autumn. It ushers in the end of hunger and a bountiful abundance of crops.
For the ancient Irish, Lughnasadh was one of the four Fire festivals mentioned in the Irish tale of Tochmarc Emire. It is named after the god Lugh, the Fair One, and is the only festival to be named after a deity. However, he is not a god of the harvest, but rather “a patron of all human skills with a special interest in kings and heroes.” It was said to have been started by him as a funeral feast and sporting competition in commemoration of his foster mother, the goddess Tailtiu, who died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. Historian Peter Berresford-Ellis says it was “an agrarian feast in honour of the harvesting of crops.” The festival evolved into a great tribal assembly where legal agreements were made, political problems were discussed and huge Olympic-style sporting contests were held. It was a time of peace and was also one of two festivals where hand-fastings have been traditionally held.
Anglo Saxon Christians also held their feast of Lammas at this time. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle refers to it as “first fruits” and historian Ronald Hutton says that it was customary at this time to reap the first of the ripe cereals and bake it into bread. This is why the festival was known as Lammas or Loaf-mass. Hutton states that “the importance of the first day of August was already so well established by 673 that Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus decreed that the annual synod of the newly established Church in England should be held then. It would seem very likely, therefore, that a pre-Christian festival had existed among the Anglo-Saxons on that date” and “the same feast was…celebrated in different ways and under different names all over Celtic, Saxon, or Norse Britain.” He goes on to say that in the middle ages this was an important time for holding fairs, paying rents, electing local officials and opening up common lands. Modern heathens follow the example of Garman Lord in naming the festival Hlafmaest, the feast of bread.
An Anglo Saxon charm recommends breaking up the bread that has been blessed on or hallowed on this day, and sprinkling it in the four corners of the barn to protect the harvested crops. Meanwhile folk practices suggest this was a time when the first sheaf of the harvest was honoured, either by being turned into a corn dolly or given as an offering (by leaving it lying in the field, burning it or throwing it into water). Alternatively it might be hung up in the house to keep away bad luck.
English folk songs of this time tell of John Barleycorn (personification of Barley), who is cut down at the harvest. Meanwhile in Norse tales, Freyr has a servant called Byggvir (Barley) who may be associated with the Harvest. Byggvir is sometimes also related to the Anglo Saxon figure “Beowa” (Old English for “Barley”), mentioned in the royal lineages as the son of Scyld and the grandson of Sceafa (Old English for “Sheaf”). Perhaps he is also related to Beowulf, as a Beowulf is mentioned as the son of Scyld Scefing.
In England, the end of July is often associated with hot weather and storms, which makes Thunor a great god to celebrate at this time. He was often seen as a god of the common man, especially of farmers and fertility. In Norse myth he has a wife called Sif, whose golden hair may be associated with the harvest, and which Loki cuts off in one tale.
For Anglo-Saxon and Norse pagans, there are many gods who may be honoured at this time – Thunor and Sif for the summer rains and the protection of the harvest, Tiw as god of the Thing, or Byggvir/ Beowa/ John Barleycorn/ Scyld or Sceafa as representation of the harvest itself. This is also a festival that lends itself particularly well to myth tellings or re-enactments, such as the story of Beowulf or of Loki cutting the hair of Sif.
Another important historical practice in England at this time is the picking of bilberries (the English version of blueberries), which often occurred on the first Sunday of August. Similarly, the first of the year’s potatoes are often ready to be pulled up at this date, and as I have an allotment this year, I shall celebrate by harvesting some.
As this was traditionally a time when the Thing was held for the Norse in Iceland, and when elections of local officials were once held in Britain, it makes sense that this would be a good time for our Pagan groups to elect new officials or hold annual general meetings to decide important issues.
In Celtic wales, this was a time when people would hike up the Brecon Beacons, perhaps harking back to the old practice of making pilgrimages to hill tops to honour the gods and leave offerings. Perhaps we could use this as an opportunity to go hiking, and leave an offering when we reach the top of some nearby hill or mountain?
Throughout Celtic cultures this has been a time to visit fairs or to hold annual competitions, games and equestrian activities (this is a feast of the warrior). One can carry out saining rites to protect the home or visit holy wells. It is a time to be thankful for the harvest, make bannocks, cheese or Lample Pie, and to enjoy the bounties of nature.
Hlafmaest or Lughnasadh is a time to be grateful for the food on our table and to remember that the hot days of summer are coming to an end as we approach the cold part of the year. It is the time to briefly rest before the hard work of reaping what has been sown begins. It’s traditional to celebrate this time by making corn dollies which represent the spirits of the fields (ask a farmer if you can cut some corn), baking bread, holding sports competitions, selling your crafts at summer fairs and hiking to hilltops with offerings. It is also a good time to pray for or work for peace. Offerings are given to Lugh, Thunor, Tiw or Beow in the hopes of a good harvest. I will be celebrating this festival by doing an ADF ritual, making some bread (one for me and one for a neighbour as an act of kindness), opening the Mead that I brewed at Midsummer, going hiking, having a feast of seasonal foods such as sausages, potatoes, sweetcorn and blueberry gravy, and spending time in nature. Sometimes I also pick bilberries/ whortleberries. Have a great Hlafmaest everyone.
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Albertsson, Alaric. Travels through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan. USA: Llewellyn Publications, 2009.
Ellis, Peter Berresford. A Brief History of the Druids. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2002.